At the end of 2012, around 100 asylum seekers walked to Vienna from the Traiskirchen reception camp in Lower Austria to protest about overcrowding and ‘degrading and inhuman conditions’ there. When Anna Jermolaewa came to Austria from Russia in 1989, she passed through this same camp. As the co-founder of an opposition party, she had had to leave her home city of Leningrad for political reasons, and many of the works in her untitled mid-career show in Krems referred to this turbulent period of her life.
The works included photographs, installations and above all video, which is the perfect medium for Jermolaewa: uncomplicated, inexpensive and intimate, with little scope for formal gimmickry. Most of the works in the show were correspondingly succinct. They are meant to show life itself, in all its immediacy and banality, but her videos always develop an additional metaphorical level. This exhibition was like a walk (alongside the protesting asylum seekers) through our well-ordered world in a hall of mirrors: what a moment ago seemed appealing and practical suddenly reveals its abysmal depths.
In Research for Sleeping Positions (2006), Jermolaewa revisits her arrival in Austria. As the title suggests, the video shows the artist searching in vain for a suitable sleeping position on a bench at Vienna’s Westbahnhof station. Even 17 years after her emigration, she comes across as a homeless person. On society’s outer edge, the skin protecting against such marginalization is clearly thin, and in metaphorical terms such sites of transit are everywhere. The theme of transit is also addressed in Auf die Seite (Out the way, 2006–8), a video shot at Vienna’s big Saturday flea market on Naschmarkt. It documents the moment every week when a municipal refuse collection team bulldozes leftovers from the temporary market into great heaps of abandoned goods. The work’s title laconically quotes the cry, heard in the film, with which those trying to salvage last items for free are chased away.
In other videos, Jermolaewa confronts the viewer with the exposed interior of a half-demolished house (In/Out, 2011) whose old shelves and everyday objects suddenly look like spilled guts, or with two toy monkeys (Don’t monkey with the monkey, 2008) whose gestures and facial expres‑sions, after some harmless initial banter, go increasingly out of control. As so often in Jermolaewa’s work, the amusing antics in this circus-like number appeal to childish voyeurism, before sliding further and further into unsettling hysteria.
The most recent work in the show is Untitled (GULAG) (2012). The installation consists of a looped projection, a monitor on the floor, and 20 small photographs and found objects leaned against the wall. Like other works in Jermolaewa’s recent shows at Salzburger Kunstverein and Camera Austria in Graz last year, the ensemble documents a research trip. For GULAG, she travelled to Russia’s Perm region, to the camps where members of her family were deported in 1930. They shared this fate with millions of others who between 1929 and the late 1950s were sent to work camps in remote areas – and often died there. These camps formed a network stretching across the entire country.
In Jermolaewa’s video and photographs, there is no sign of this horror. Instead, the projection shows a winter drive through an endless Siberian forest. Again and again, the vehicle sinks hopelessly into the mud. The soundtrack consists of telephone conversations between Jermolaewa and members of her family who recount their experiences from the period of deportation. The video on the monitor was shot in a former camp and shows decaying wooden buildings in the middle of nowhere, crumbling walls, old documents buried under rubble. Leaning against the opposite wall are two signs and a key rack – found objects that Jermolaewa brought back with her from Siberia. The weathered lettering on one of the signs states ‘Admitting guilt is not enough’, above a daily schedule for prisoners. On the key rack, the hooks are assigned to specific doors and rooms – from the main gate to the morgue. Taken together, the parts of the installation create a dreamlike, even nightmarish mixture: everything is openly displayed, but it remains mysterious. Jermolaewa’s ‘research trips’ are deliberately neither journalistic nor scientific, but always marked by personal involvement and direct presence in specific places. And this ‘relatedness’ or affinity is what sparks the key metaphorical dimension of her oeuvre.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell